Having given up on making stand-alones, Marvel's desire to tie everything into its "universe" hinders this movie's inherent joy.
There are two versions of Ant-Man out there. Unfortunately, we only get to see the one being released to theaters this weekend. The other was a motion picture filled with promise, a labor of love for the men involved and, by all accounts, one of the quirkiest takes on a Marvel hero yet. Naturally, that previous stated adjective, "quirky", scared head honcho Kevin Feige, who keeps waiting for the other cinematic shoe to drop on his weakening multi-phase universes.
So Edgar Wright was pitched in favor of Peyton Reed with additional screenwriters brought in to salvage what the Shaun of the Dead auteur and his collaborator, Joe Cornish, had begun over a decade ago. The results are just what the box office champion wanted -- another cog in the infernal movie machine that cares more about overreaching story arcs more than individual entertainment. That this version of Ant-Man maintains the punky charms of last year's surprise hit, Guardians of the Galaxy, may be the only imprint Wright and Cornish have left on the material.
The rest is rote, with tags and tie-ins to future franchise placeholders, each inside move meant to satisfy at a later date. That's not the way a standard storyline is supposed to work. While much of Ant-Man can be considered self-contained, you can just tell it's trying to be more. Even within its heist genre trappings, there is a distinct feeling of "to be continued", as if Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) are meant for bigger and better things. Again, what does that say about your current commitment to the audience.
Narratively, we are introduced to Lang, fresh out of the hoosegow. He wants to get straight, especially for his young daughter, but the lure of another "last job" is irresistible. Into his life comes Deus ex Plot Machina, Pym, whose chosen our snarky criminal to be the next Ant-Man. It was a title the scientific genius held years before. Part of the plan involves keeping a former protégé named Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) from selling the ant technology to Hydra. He double-crossed Pym and now runs his company. All Lang has to do is break in to the building, steal the Yellowjacket outfit that our villain uses to enact his evil, and beat a competitive Evangeline Lilly (who wants to be Ant... girl?) to the superhero punch.
When it focuses on the F/X, when we watch Rudd shrink in size but grow in power, Ant-Man is a hoot. A decidedly lesser comic book hoot, but a hoot nonetheless. The action sequences definitely come from the "haven't seen that before" genre guidebook, including an amazing bit on a model train track. But the lack of complexity and desire for interconnectivity starts showing through the minute the movie goes into character mode. Exposition dump after exposition dump reminds us that Ant-Man will be back for whatever number of Avengers' spin-off the Disney bosses desire. Instead of going for broke and letting Wright run wild, they choose the safe route, and it shows.
Still, this is a fast-paced and likable effort, nothing truly special but little to be embarrassed about, either. The actors are all game, with Rudd and Douglas spouting off some excellent one liners at the expense of the other. Stoll is a solid baddie; that is, when he's rocking the bug suit. When he isn't, there's nary a reason to really fear him. Yes, there are cameos. Yes, there are tie-ins. But this is really a three man (and one left out lady) effort, a cinematic scale that matches the movie's own lack of epicness. In fact, that's probably the biggest complaint about Ant-Man. Instead of having scope, it has sass, and sass will only take you so far.
Michael Pena's Luis is a perfect example of this concept. He's no Groot or Rocket Raccoon, but he sure is a scene stealer. He's funny, but he's also tiring, a gimmick to give this quasi-comedy a few more (unnecessary) laughs. Guardians of the Galaxy got the balance right. Ant-Man is too uneven to be considered that stable. Even the core concept becomes belabored, the whole small/big switcheroo gets a bit chaotic after a while.
And then there is Reed, who proves his also-ran status time and time again. You can see what Feige and company could have been worried about with Wright behind the lens. This film is filled with the possibilities of playing fast and loose with various tropes. Because he's a second (or, perhaps, fourth or fifth) choice, Reed doesn't distinguish himself. Instead, he goes back to the basic superhero handbook, letting his actors take the chances while he prepares the path. When the film is funny, it drives to deliver. When it's serious, it's quite uninteresting.
That's because the odds here are already determined. Ant-Man has to be around to play a part in the upcoming Civil and Infinity Wars, and failure here would only mean more back-peddling come the next installment. Like this May's Avengers: Age of Ultron proved, Marvel is no longer interested in the stand-alone business. It's all about the bigger picture. For something like Ant-Man, that's aesthetically antithetical, and the reason why the final product is merely good, not great.